Review: ‘Blood’ runs pretty dry

“There Will Be Blood” is a capital-“A” art film concerned with weighty subjects and front-loaded with a big performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as fictitious oil man Daniel Plainview, who scratches out a fortune in early 20th-century Southern California by digging holes in the ground, striking it rich, and bullying anyone who gets in his way.

One-time young hotshot director Paul Thomas Anderson made his name with “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights,” but later crapped out with the pretentious “Magnolia.” He has a thing about hubris-laden SoCal residents, and his socially conscious concerns dovetail nicely with socialist author Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” Sinclair’s 1927 work, an indictment of crass capitalism, is loosely adapted by Anderson as a vehicle for the aggressively acquisitive Plainview.

As portrayed by English actor Day-Lewis, Plainview is a rude conqueror with little time for people skills, even when it comes to his young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). Unfortunately, Day-Lewis chooses to play the petro-prospector as a vocal impersonation of John Huston, the late director/actor/Hollywood legend whose role as corrupt patriarch Noah Cross in “Chinatown” is strangely echoed in Plainview’s depredations among the oilfields of Ventura County. The Huston accent is distracting — didn’t anyone realize that?

Filmmaker Anderson depicts Plainview’s rise and fall with a stately procession of slow, beautifully composed scenes (terrific cinematography by Robert Elswit) of Plainview and his manly crew — there are virtually no women in the story — building derricks and hoodwinking small farmers into selling their land cheaply. But the visual poetry is rarely matched by the writing.

Like the land itself, Anderson’s story is pretty dry. Aside from the oil wells, the only gusher comes from actor Paul Dano’s performance as the charismatic young preacher Eli Sunday, Plainview’s nemesis. Dano, almost unrecognizable from his roles in last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Fast Food Nation,” deserves the acting prize in “There Will Be Blood,” not Day-Lewis. Ciarán Hinds, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Hans Howes turn in apt performances as Plainview’s right-hand man, a “long-lost relative” and a reluctant farmer, respectively.

If we squint hard, we can glimpse other California empire builders in the part of Daniel Plainview. Charles Foster Kane of “Citizen Kane” is only the most obvious. Anderson and his cast are clearly trying to say something about the adverse effects of unbridled greed in the days of “self-made men,” but the screenplay isn’t up to the job. Ironically, despite the title, it’s a fairly bloodless exercise.

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